The first study of President Clinton’s court appointments contradicts Republican Bob Dole’s charge that Clinton has filled the federal bench with lenient, liberal judges who are soft on crime.
Three political scientists from different universities said their data showed that Clinton-appointed judges “exhibit moderate decisional tendencies.” Other scholars supported those findings.
Clinton judges are not as liberal as judges appointed by Democratic President Carter or as conservative as jurists named by Republican Presidents Reagan and Bush, the researchers said.
In fact, the proportion of liberal decisions made by Clinton trial judges in criminal cases did not differ significantly from those handed down by appointees of Republican President Ford.
The research was first presented to a political science association in Houston in March, about a month before Dole launched his assault on Clinton’s court nominees. The researchers described the study as “a first empirical look” at the voting patterns of Clinton-appointed judges.
Dole, who is virtually certain to become the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, charged that Clinton populated the federal bench with “an all-star team of liberal leniency.”
Clinton appointees “demonstrated an outright hostility to law enforcement” and are “dismantling those guardrails that protect society from the predatory, the violent and the anti-social elements in our midst,” Dole said.
Dole made his charges even though federal courts handle only a small fraction of the nation’s violent crimes and more than 60 percent of all current federal judges were appointed by Republican presidents.
In addition, the Supreme Court is dominated by Reagan-Bush nominees, relatively few liberal activists remain on the federal bench, and Dole himself voted against only two of Clinton’s 184 Senate-confirmed appointments to the federal courts.
Dole, whose campaign office did not respond to telephone calls during several days, supported his accusations by citing cases in which seven Clinton appointees ruled for criminal defendants.
For example, Dole put U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson of Norfolk, Va., on his judicial “Hall of Shame” for dismissing armed robbery charges against a youthful defendant.
But a different impression would have emerged from another criminal case in which Judge Jackson sentenced a defendant to 15 years in prison - nearly four times the length of the maximum term prescribed by federal sentencing guidelines.
“It’s almost a cheap shot to pick out isolated decisions,” observed political scientist Robert Carp, one of the three researchers.
“It would be easy to select Reagan and Bush judges and show they’re liberal. Many Clinton judges issue conservative opinions,” Carp said.
“We looked at the aggregate … and there is nothing to indicate the Clinton judges are anything other than slightly more liberal than Republican appointees,” said Carp, who is associate dean for research at the University of Houston’s social sciences college.
He said neither he nor his colleagues - Ronald Stidham of Appalachian State University in North Carolina and Donald Songer of the University of South Carolina - are active in any political party.
They compared opinions of judges appointed by Presidents Nixon through Clinton in criminal, civil rights-liberties, and labor and economic regulation cases.
Decisions were called “liberal” if they sided with criminal defendants, expanded civil rights or individual liberties, supported labor unions or backed the government in regulatory cases.
Sheldon Goldman, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said Dole “will have to strain a great deal to make this a campaign issue in view of all the mainsteam appointments Clinton has made.”
Goldman, who has studied the Clinton administration’s methods of choosing judges, said Clinton “stayed away from controversial nominations and stayed away from liberal activists.”
While Clinton dropped a few troubled nominations and Republican senators stalled some others, only three Clinton selections provoked open Senate fights, ultimately winning confirmation.